34 things to do in Old Dubai

We discover the charm of our city's older areas Comments

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Every great city has a geographical and cultural divide: whether it’s the friendly rivalry between Londoners living north and south of the river, or the diversity of the boroughs of New York, the division often evokes a tongue-in-cheek sense of competitiveness and plenty of impassioned debate. Dubai may be a young, fast-developing upstart in comparison to these long-established cities, but it’s similar in that is has two distinct areas, commonly known as ‘Old’ and ‘New’ Dubai.

The city first began to grow around the creek – the beating heart of its import-export industry – but once the emirate became rich from the discovery of oil, ambitious developments began to spring up along Sheikh Zayed Road. The newer parts of town, such as DIFC, Downtown Dubai and Dubai Marina, have since attracted expats, which has led to the majority of new bars, restaurants and galleries opening in those areas. But with the opening of several new hotels – including the Meliá Bur Dubai (home of the much-hyped Marco Pierre White restaurant Titanic and edgy club Mansion) and the forthcoming Jumeirah Creekside Hotel, which is set to open ‘softly’ in Garhoud on July 1 – there’s a sense that Old Dubai is enjoying a rebirth. Fuelling this revival is news of the scheduled soft opening of Versace Dubai Hotel in late 2013, not to mention Mövenpick Deira’s arrival last year – the first international five-star property to arrive in Deira for more than ten years.

With this in mind, we decided it was high time to celebrate the older, northern part of town by taking a closer look at what makes it tick in terms of art, architecture, dining and nightlife. We’ve also rounded up an inspiring checklist of things to do there, whether you live in the area, fancy visiting, or are hosting a visitor keen to experience the ‘original Dubai’.

The Architecture

Head north and you’ll step back in time to a vibrant neighbourhood that’s still full of abras, dhows, and spice souks A quick tour around Bur Dubai and Deira should silence any armchair historian who claims Dubai’s history only goes back 60-odd years. The Bastakiya area is home to Dubai Museum, itself located inside the city’s oldest building: Al Fahidi Fort, built in 1787. ‘Historically, that’s a very important, iconic building,’ explains Emirati architect Shatha Al Mulla, an engineer in Dubai Municipality’s Architectural Heritage department. ‘And in terms of administratively important buildings, the first Dubai Municipality building, which is now Dubai Municipality Museum in Deira, is a big one. Dubai Municipality’s first administration work was done there, all the goods coming in and out – everything went through there at the time,’ she notes. ‘Meanwhile, the house of Sheikh Saeed bin Maktoum Al Maktoum [ruler of Dubai from 1912-1958] is one of the most important houses because it was the ruler’s house, and has many unique architectural elements.’

As well as Old Dubai’s historically iconic structures, Al Mulla also points out one of Dubai’s first notable business towers. ‘The Trade Centre was the first iconic building built in Dubai, 33 years ago. A lot of people don’t see it now [compared with newer buildings].’ With its recognisable beehive exterior, the 39-storey tower was the tallest in the UAE when it was built in 1979, and the first high-rise on Sheikh Zayed Road – at the time, the road itself was a fraction of the six-lane highway it is today, and was yet to be renamed in honour of the UAE’s first president.

At the heart of Old Dubai lies the source from which the entire city has developed outwards. ‘As a person working in conservation, Dubai Creek is very, very important. If you look back to when Dubai was first mentioned in 1587, the creek had the same purpose at that time as it does today,’ Al Mulla explains. ‘For me, that’s what’s unique in Dubai. You still find goods being imported and exported to and from different areas – the creek is still the heart of Dubai.’

To acknowledge this heritage, Dubai Municipality has spent two years working towards registering it as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The creek is one of the few areas that encapsulate a bygone era, yet the old souks betray early signs of Dubaians’ penchant for shopping, paving the way for our now world-famous malls.

Aside from industry, the creek’s waterways are still functional commuter lanes, with passengers continuing to pay just Dhs1 to cross from Deira to Bur Dubai or vice versa by abra. And the ancient, colourfully decorated wooden dhows are still loaded daily with all manner of goods to be shipped to destinations as far flung as Somalia and Mumbai.

By Oliver Robinson
Time Out Dubai,

User reviews:

Posted by: Salim on 22 Jun ' 12 at 15:39

Edited by TimeOutDubai.com

The Bastakiya also sports a Superb Art Gallery, Guest house and a Vegeterrian Cafe - X V A. It's unique and charming atmosphere is sure to amaze the visitor's. But in order to visit it on has to Discover it, in Bastakiyas maze like narrow lanes. No wonder ... they call it Dubai's Best Kept Secret. Simply amazing ...XVA ART HOTEL. I loved the Egg Plant Burger and refreshing Fresh Mint Lemonade.

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